Gifted and Talented, Post, PACT Theatre, 16th June 2007
There's something curious in the air, and it's not simply the wild weather that has finally heralded the onset of winter. The first sightings have been made of large groups of young people, mostly girls, in tights and leotards, sequins, lamé, hairnets, hair spray, and far too much make up. Yes, its Eisteddfod season! As the Rock Eisteddfod heats begin all around Sydney, it seems no accident that these bizarre cultural rituals of performance, competition, and sadomasochism have infiltrated the domain of theatrical performance as well, in the form of the fascinating and disturbing worlds of Sydney-based emerging artists Post in Gifted and Talented at PACT Theatre, and the much-lauded Melbourne-based Stuck Pigs Squealing's The Eisteddfod with a welcome return to Sydney for B-Sharp. More on that in Part 2 of Eisteddfod season.
For reasons beyond my comprehension, here in Australia we go crazy for eisteddfods, especially the monumental folly that to me comprises the national Rock Eisteddfod. In what seems a peculiar and sadly Australian phenomenon, artistic practice can only been seen as being a legitimate pursuit when it is framed as a competition. Art as it approaches the condition of sport. To triumph in the sporting arena, as we all know from hundreds of sports movies, one must be prepared to suffer. The same holds true in the competitive artistic frame of the Eisteddfod, and each of these works engage with the forms of suffering that must be undergone in order to properly compete at this alleged elite level.
In Post's Gifted and Talented, this suffering occurs to bodies, in this case the bodies of the three performers (Nat Rose, Mish Grigor and Zoë Coombs-Marr). Or rather this necessary suffering is inflicted upon these bodies largely through description. Performing the roles of their mothers, much of the performance has them watching from the wings as the girls compete in the Eisteddfod. The performers endlessly describe in hilarious and increasingly disturbing detail the measures that they have taken to make sure 'their girls' are ready to compete at their best. This of course means to win at all costs. It doesn't matter how they feel or how much they suffer, so long as one of those Parramatta girls doesn't take home the trophy.
This process of physical conditioning traverses the expected territory of food deprivation, weight disorders, forced flexibility, and denial of bodily functions. Perhaps lightly foreshadowing the violent humiliations to come, right from the start young Zoë is left by her Mum in a urine-stained leotard for the remainder of the day, because she waited until she was stitched in before she needed to go. It's clear that she needed to be taught a lesson:
"It's eisteddfod day. Today you are not a person, you are a dancer. You are number 294. You never see Paul Mercurio stepping out for a number one in Strictly Ballroom. In fact there are never any bathroom scenes in dance movies."
Later, in one of the most viscerally uncomfortable moments of the piece despite its patent ridiculousness as a gesture, Coombs-Marr slowly pours an entire can of Solo into her lap, as if re-enacting this moment of hitherto only reported shaming.
Apart from the humour (and the piece is painfully, laugh-out-loud funny), the casual brutality that underpins such seemingly benign cultural practices as the dance eisteddfod becomes increasingly palpable throughout the performance. Wearing colourful tracksuits, and consuming an endless procession of Solo, cigarettes, and sausage rolls with tomato sauce, the three seated 'mums' rhetorically dismember their children's performances, physical and mental attributes, body images, and perceived intelligence. "I just keep calling her stupid. I don't think she knows what I'm talking about." And later from Nat: "I told her teacher, it's not the dancing that's to blame for her bad marks, it's her stupidity." In between they engage in fractured musings on the culture of others, including Asians, Aboriginals, and Africans, thoughtlessly chopping and changing cultural signifiers, blindly and catastrophically misreading cultural practices, most often, it seems, in terms of mud and dirt. Their kids, by contrast, never play with mud. They are clean, they are white, and they are winners.
Like the banter in Kath and Kim this conversation induces squirms of painful recognition, but freed from the need of family television to not transgress too far, these carefully crafted offhand remarks turn as awful and offensive as can be imagined, and then some. The routine contempt for difference, and the symbolic violence done to this difference through misrepresentation, is as shocking as it is hilarious, raising the genuinely disturbing question - what does it say about us that we laugh and keep laughing, despite ourselves?
The work stays in this conversational domain for much of its duration, and the buckets the performers have set in front of themselves fill up with the contents and cans of Solo, half-smoked cigarettes, and half eaten sausage rolls. The description simply gets more over-the-top horrible, a perhaps predictable escalation. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the domain of description changes radically. Rather than the painful spectacle of the dance eisteddfod, the 'mums' begin to describe in great detail actual tortures. Some of these we in the audience begin to recognise as becoming conducted in the name of the war on terror in places such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, locations especially in mind after last week's Four Corners program on torture.
Somewhat shockingly, after the litany of casual horrors inflicted upon the children to fulfill a need to produce victory, it doesn't seem that much of a leap from the black box of the theatre space to the black holes of such extra-legal spaces where these acts of violence are sanctioned by our representatives. The painful suffering to produce theatrical spectacle such as the dance eisteddfod, Post somewhat riskily propose, perhaps reflects some of reasons why such spectacular presentations of violence and suffering as the various prisoner abuse scandals have become so mainstream, so much a part of the image-repertoire of the contemporary everyday. We're used to violence, degradation, and humiliation, Post declare, because look how we enact it routinely, for nothing but a meaningless trophy.
It’s a tough switch for young performers to pull off, and they do a credible job of it. After the can of Solo is used to as a urine substitute on Coombs-Marr, the other two drag her up facing a wall, strip her down and wipe her down with towels. Apparent from the fact that this is done to an adult body instead of a child's, this does not seem that strange an action for mums to do. However, after cleaning her they leave her against the wall with her shirt over her head, and she remains there for some time, forbidden to move. From eisteddfod to Abu Ghraib in a single, exceedingly simple, image. The image is multiplied as the other performers join the tableau, which they proceed to sustain for an amount of time almost as painful as many of the previous cruel jokes. Then, as a necessary catharsis they perform the much-anticipated and derided eisteddfod routine, a joyous spectacle of tack and absurdity, the credited assistance of the local maestros of beautifully bad dancing Emma Saunders and Julie-Anne Long clearly visible. There's a touch of Forced Entertainment in there as well, a dark, strange, and pleasurable rock and roll meets desperately disintegrating variety act. The soundtrack and the lights from Bloody Mess with the fixed smiles and dancing in the style of First Night, perhaps. The comparisons aren't exact, only echoes. While the stylistic influences and the lineages of practice and training are familiar (another success for PACT Youth Theatre's imPACT training program along with other recent emerging Sydney groups like spat + loogie, falling 32, and the now-defunct Shagging Julie) this doesn't feel derivative. Something new and very very strange is being transacted here.
There's obviously more work to do. Gifted and Talented the company may be, but polished and seamless they aren't quite yet. The production values are creaky but kind of fun in their own daggy way, the structure needs work, and the performers haven't quite the complete command of the performative transformations that their dramaturgy demands. However, this is exciting, intelligent, blackly comic, and confronting theatre. Clearly, Post are talents to watch carefully.